Baking Extravaganza, Act IV

31 03 2008

A week or two ago, I was browsing Doughmonkey’s website to see what I was missing.  The Goat Butter Caramelized Apple Strudel struck a chord, and I knew I would be attempting my own version in the near future.  Because I like to play around with flavors, I wondered how a caramelized apple and goat cheese strudel would be, and decided it was worth a shot.

The first step, obviously, is caramelizing the apples.  I thought that nice thick slices, à la tarte tatin, would be best, so I peeled two apples (they were Braeburns, I believe) and cut each into eight wedges, removing the core as I went.  Meanwhile, I was melting butter and cassonade in a pan, so when the apples were prepped, they went straight into the hot butter/sugar mixture.

Apples before

I cooked them over medium-low heat, turning them occasionally, until they were evenly browned on all sides.

Apples after

At this point I threw in another tablespoon or so of butter, to slow down the cooking and bump up the buttery flavor (let’s not forget the title of the dessert that inspired this one).  I let them continue browning until they were deep golden brown in color, then removed the pan from the heat and let them cool.

I wasn’t about to try to make strudel dough on my own, but I know from experience that it is similar enough to phyllo dough that the latter can easily substitute.  At the store I found phyllo without a problem, and next to it were packages of brick paper (feuilles de brick), a thin pastry dough which I believe is North African in origin.  It is quite similar to phyllo dough, but slightly easier to work with and perhaps even closer in texture to the strudel dough I was trying to emulate.  since brick paper is sold in round sheets, I had to figure out what shape I wanted the final dessert to be.  I decided that triangles would be easy and less likely to involve a huge mess than a roll- or beggar’s purse- shaped pastry was.  So I cut the circle of dough in half, brushed it with butter (and when I say “brushed,” I mean “smeared with my fingers,” since I don’t have a pastry brush yet), and folded it in half lengthwise.  I placed two pieces of caramelized apple at one end of the resulting strip and topped them with a dollop of fresh goat cheese.

Step 1

Then I folded it up, spanakopita-style, into a neat little triangle.  Note: this was just the right amount of filling – any more, and I would have had real trouble getting the dough to fold all the way around it.

Apple triangle, unbaked

I debated frying them in butter on the stove, but ended up opting for the less greasy (and cleaner) baking method for cooking my apple-goat cheese triangles.

Apple triangle - baked

They came out smashingly.  The crisp pastry surrounding the buttery-soft caramelized apples and the gently tangy goat cheese worked really well together.  We ate them unadorned, and enjoyed them quite a bit, but an apple gastrique sauce and a scoop of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream would have pushed these babies over the top.


Taking Advantage of France

28 03 2008

We’ve had kind of a busy week this week, in preparation for our upcoming move.  I’ve been taking measurements of the new place, shopping around for household items, trying to find the right balance between quality and price, and researching phone/internet/tv deals.  Nick has been, well, working.  On days when we don’t have time to cook, or don’t feel like it, we take advantage of the bounty that France’s boulangeries, charcuteries, and fromageries have to offer. 

Nothing makes a better (or easier) dinner than a wedge of cheese, a slice of pâté, a bowl of soup, some great bread, and a bottle of wine.  Sometimes the soup comes from a box, (My favorite is Knorr’s Douceur de 8 Légumes – eight vegetable soup.  You can’t believe how happy I was to discover that it hasn’t changed in the seven years since I was last living in France.) but last week the stars converged in a fortuitous manner.  Just as an inordinately large bag of frozen peas found its way into my kitchen, so did a recipe for cream of pea soup – calling for frozen peas!  Seeing as I almost always have cream on hand, I didn’t have to do any shopping at all.

And the soup was so easy, it practically made itself.  All I had to do was dice an onion and sauté it in butter, add some broth, bring it to a boil, add peas and cook until tender.  Then I puréed the whole thing using a hand blender (if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up).  I finished the soup with a few ounces of cream and adjusted the seasoning.  What could be easier?  We ate it with the ostrich pâté we got at the salon, a bit of sausage, Roquefort, Gouda, and Morbier cheeses, a tradi, and a bottle of Bordeaux.

Pâté and cheese and bread, oh, my!

While this particular meal was more in a clean-out-the-fridge vein, sometimes we plan these things out a little better.  In the week following the salon, we put together a nice appetizer for ourselves, consisting of bread, that awesome perfectly ripe cheese, and a bottle of Crémant de Bourgogne.  Since both the cheese and the wine were from Burgundy, I figured that they would work well together.  And you know what?  They did.

What grows together goes together…

Have a good weekend, everybody!

Easter Dinner

27 03 2008

You would think that after such a rich brunch, we would want something light for dinner.  And you would be wrong.  Like I said, the lack of Wii significantly increased the amount of time spent cooking this Easter.  So we planned a fabulous dinner for ourselves.  I asked Nick to try to recreate the celeriac-Roquefort soup he made for Thanksgiving, since both ingredients are cheap and plentiful here.  I found a recipe for a roasted beet and carrot salad on the Cook’s Illustrated website that I wanted to try, given that, as Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini pointed out, beets are on their way out of season.  I have never been a big fan of beets, but I continue to try them in different forms, hoping to find one that I enjoy.  Nick put it quite well when he said, “I keep thinking that I’m going to grow up and like beets all of a sudden.”  For the main dish, lamb seemed to be an obvious choice.  But how to cook it?  Given the recent influx of spring vegetables at the market, I decided on a navarin, a traditional French lamb stew with spring vegetables.  I perused a few recipes, but in the end, just made it up as I went along.

Unfortunately, because the camera was on the fritz for most of the day, few pictures were taken.  However, I did manage to get one good shot of each dish.  So without further ado, I present to you the soup.

Celeriac-Roquefort Soup

As you can see, it’s a puréed soup.  What you can’t see is how magically the piquancy of the Roquefort complements the mellow, vegetal, nuttiness of the celeriac.  Hazelnuts were a natural choice for garnish, both enhancing the flavor of the soup and providing a nice crunch for contrast.  The watercress I threw on there because it looked pretty and I had some out anyway, for the salad.  But the fresh, peppery bite of the greens added another dimension to the soup, highlighting the contribution of the Roquefort.  Speaking of the salad…

Salad of Roasted Beets and Carrots with Watercress

It was a beautiful sight to behold.  The deep reddish-purple of the beets next to the nearly burnt orange (for all you Texas fans out there) of the carrots and the vibrant green of the watercress made for a truly stunning tableau.  And really easy to make.  I simply cut the vegetables into batons, tossed them in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and stuck them in the oven for half an hour or so.  They could have gone even longer, but we were getting hungry.  While they roasted, I made a fairly strong vinaigrette with cider vinegar, shallots, honey, salt, pepper, and olive oil.  When the beets and carrots were cooked through, I dumped them into a large bowl, tossed them with the vinaigrette, and added the watercress.  Easy-peasy.

On to the pièce de résistance: spring lamb stew (or, as they call it here, navarin d’agneau).

Read the rest of this entry »

Easter Brunch

26 03 2008

Usually we spend Easter Sunday with a bunch of friends, cooking up a big brunch, gorging ourselves on pork products, drinking champagne, and (last year, anyway) playing Wii.  This year, however, we were on our own (our current apartment isn’t exactly suited for entertaining, but the situation will soon be rectified), the Wii sitting idly in its box until we can procure a television.  As a result, we probably spent even more time than usual cooking ourselves fabulous Easter treats.  Strata has always been one of my favorite brunch dishes, and I am given to making it on holidays, since it takes some time to prepare, but most of the hands-on work can be done the day before.  We still had some Basque chorizo from the Salon in the fridge, so I decided to base this year’s Easter strata on that. 

First I had to track down some Basque cheese, and went to check out a nearby Basque-centric shop I had read about.  It seemed appropriate that the place was situated near the Pyrenées Métro stop.  The shop itself had a very weird vibe, though.  I walked in and the man there (the proprietor?), who was seated at a table, eating lunch, looked surprised to see me.  I asked if they had any Basque cheeses, since there didn’t seem to be any merchandise on display, and I felt as though I had just walked into someone’s home.  He said he did, and called to the back for his wife (or employee?  I really don’t know).  She came out, got a hunk of cheese from the fridge, and cut a small wedge for me.  Then both of them insisted that the ONLY way to eat this cheese was with black cherry jam.  I smiled and nodded and got out of there.

Cut to Saturday evening.  I had acquired a large bag of onions at the market on Thursday, and thought that caramelized onions would be excellent in the strata.  Nick, feeling industrious, took it upon himself to slice up about 4 onions and start them cooking right after dinner.

Onions, before  Onions, halfway there  Onions, after

Since we didn’t have any big plans for the next morning, I decided to put off assembling the strata until then.  Bright and early on Sunday, which was a gorgeously sunny morning, I woke up and got to work.  I buttered the baking dish and laid down slices of bread, like this:

Strata - first layer

There’s a prize for the first person to correctly identify the 3 slices of pain tradition (or tradi, as I just recently learned it is called colloquially).  On a side note, if you are ever buying bread in Paris, I strongly suggest you forgo the baguette in favor of the tradi.  In any given bakery, it is the bread that is given the most love and care in its preparation, and you can really taste the difference.  There is a bakery just down the street that somehow always has tradis fresh from the oven, still warm.  But I digress.  Back to the strata.

Strata - second layer

I topped the bread slices with a layer of onions, followed by layers of chorizo and cheese.

3rd layer  4th layer

After that, more onions and a final layer of bread slices – like a dish full of tiny sandwiches!

5th layer  6th layer

Then I beat some eggs with milk, cream, salt, and pepper.  I poured this mixture over the bread slices, making sure to coat each one.  I covered the whole thing with plastic wrap and weighted it down with the bag of onions in order to make sure the bread soaked up all of the custard.  (You can make this up to this point and let it sit in the fridge overnight, if you want.)  After an hour or so, it looked like this:

Oven-ready strata

I placed it in the oven and we waited, cleaning up the mess I had made and enjoying our leisurely morning coffee.  The total baking time was a little over an hour at 175C, and I rotated the pan halfway through.  And when it was done…

Baked strata - ready to eat!

We feasted!

Spring Pasta Supper

25 03 2008

Now that it is officially springtime (Paris in the spring being more cloudy and rainy than not, so far), new fruits and vegetables are beginning to show up at the market.  The pumpkins, oranges, and pears are slowly but surely being replaced by peas, spring onions, and Garriguettes (amazingly fragrant French strawberries).  Nearly every stand at the market is now carrying fava beans, which I thought would make a perfect meat-free dinner for Good Friday.  To say that fava beans are time-consuming to prepare is true, but misses the point.  If you have some good music or good company, the time spent shelling and peeling goes by quickly, and the reward is totally worth it.

Fava beans

First you have to take the beans out of their pods, which have a foamy padding on the inside to protect the fragile beans – looks comfy!  From these pods, I ended up with this many beans:

Shelled Favas

They look ready to cook at this point, but no, each bean must be stripped of its bitter, pale green skin.  This task is made a little easier by blanching the beans first.  I got a large pot of water boiling and added the beans.  After a minute or two (just long enough to soften and loosen the skins a bit) I drained them and ran them under cold water to stop the cooking and cool them off enough to handle.  Then I began peeling.  It may seem to be a tedious task, but I didn’t mind, I just kept my iPod rocking and my eyes on the prize.  And here they are, all ready to go, for real this time:

Peeled Favas

Because it takes so much time to get so few usable beans, I decided to stretch them out in a pasta dish with tomatoes and goat cheese.  I boiled some pasta and added the favas for the last couple minutes to heat them through.  After draining I returned the pasta and beans to the pot and gently stirred in some halved cherry tomatoes and crumbled fresh goat cheese.  This needs something else, I thought, but what?  Then I remembered how the mint at the market smelled so delicious that I had to buy it – if mint and peas are a match made in heaven, why not fava beans?  Into the pot went the freshly chopped mint, along with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and freshly ground pepper.

Fava Pasta

Other than the fava bean prep, this was a really quick meal to put together.  As predicted, the mint and fava beans complemented each other beautifully, with the goat cheese and tomatoes lending their support in a non-scene-stealing way.  I make variations of this dish all summer long, and I love the way the goat cheese melts and coats the pasta with a tangy, creamy sauce.  And it was nice to have something light before our upcoming Easter gluttony-fest.  (Don’t worry, you’ll see.)

Baking Extravaganza, Act III

21 03 2008

Recently I picked up a French food magazine, tempted by the promise of chocolate recipes inside.  I thought I’d try one for Nick’s and my anniversary, and the moelleux fit the bill by being relatively simple, yet elegant.  Moelleux, or melting center chocolate cake, as we verbosely refer to it in the States, is an extremely popular dessert here in France.  It appears on many restaurant menus and in the frozen dessert aisle at the supermarket.  Part of me has to wonder why, when it’s so easy to make at home?

At any rate, I wanted to use some good chocolate, but sourcing world-class chocolate in Paris is a more daunting task than it might first appear.  I have found Valrhona and Cluizel at the Grande Epicerie, and I saw some Bonnat lurking at a coffee-roaster, but so far, my search for non-French high-end chocolate has been fruitless.  So, feeling lazy, and because I also had to buy ramekins and a suitable bowl for melting the chocolate over a bain-marie, I wound up at the supermarket, carefully inspecting the chocolate selection.  I bought the only single-plantation bar there, Lindt’s Diogo Vaz 70%.  Wanting an option in case it sucked, I eventually chose the 86% noir de dégustation from 1848, a company I’ll admit I never heard of before moving here.  I had to calm my inner snob by telling myself, “Just because you’ve never heard of it doesn’t mean it’s terrible.”


Neither was particularly spectacular, but they were serviceable for my purposes.  The Lindt displayed hints of it’s characteristic chalkiness, so I decided to use that one for the cake batter and the smoother, almost fudgesicle-flavored 1848 for the melting centers.

I roughly chopped the Lindt and put it into my new bowl with some butter, guessing at the amounts since I don’t have a scale yet and all the recipes are in grams.  Anyway, I placed the bowl over a saucepan with a little water and turned the heat on to medium-low.

Melting the Chocolate and Butter

Meanwhile, I beat some eggs and cassonade together with a pinch of sea salt.  When the chocolate and butter were completely melted and smooth, I removed the bowl from the bain-marie and beat in the egg mixture in a steady stream.  About halfway through this process, it looked like the chocolate was on the verge of seizing up and ruining everything, but I kept whisking and wound up with a smooth mixture.  I folded in a couple spoonfuls of flour (French recipes call for cuillère à soupe or cuillère à café, literally soup spoon or coffee spoon, respectively, and as far as I have been able to determine, they mean for you to use your flatware for these measurements, as I haven’t seen any measuring spoons in any of the cookware shops I have visited),  and my batter was ready.

Moelleux batter

I buttered my ramekins and filled each half-full with batter.  I carefully placed two squares of the 1848 on top, so they wouldn’t sink to the bottom.

Moelleux prep

I poured the rest of the batter over the top, thus filling the ramekins almost all the way up.

Oven ready moelleux

And into the very hot toaster oven they went.  I had planned on making an orange caramel sauce to accompany the moelleux, but dinner had been heartier than expected and isn’t the whole point of this dessert that it makes its own sauce?  So I skipped it.  Fifteen minutes later, upon opening the oven, I was greeted with two of these:


We let them cool a bit and dug in.  I was pretty pleased with the results – the top had some crispness to it, with the cake below dissolving almost imperceptibly into the melted chocolate center.  Next time I’ll try it with better chocolate, and I bet it will be fantastic.

Happy Easter weekend, everyone!

Food Fair, concluded

20 03 2008

It was around this point that Nick noted the proliferation of stands dispensing aperitifs.  We concluded that the reason behind it was to keep everyone in a constant state of hunger.  And on that note, we went to taste some Armagnac.  Before we were given a sip, we got a full-on Armagnac-tasting lesson.  The (very) Frenchman doling it out told us that you must warm it in your hands and take deep smells of it – like a woman.  We got to taste the 1979 and the 1967.  The ’67 was pretty remarkable, I thought, although never having tried Armagnac before, I don’t have much of a frame of reference.  When the vendor found out this fact, he said this was the third time in one day that he had initiated someone into the world of Armagnac.  The first was a Swiss man, and the second was a Japanese couple.  We were holding out to try the 1944, but it didn’t seem to be in the cards.  He tried to put the hard sell on us, and we walked away empty handed.

Over to another foie gras booth, where we got samples of foie gras mi-cuit and foie gras au sel from Alban Laban.  Both were unctuously delicious, but the foie gras au selwas the real standout.  Uncooked, simply cured in salt, it was perfectly seasoned with an incredibly smooth mouthfeel.  I could have eaten tubs of the stuff and they would have had to roll me home.  So I guess it’s a good thing that they weren’t giving out free tubs of foie gras au sel.

Instead, we wandered over to the G. Prieur Grands Vins de Bourgogne stand.  I came for the Vosne-Romanée, and I stayed for the nice large Burgundy glasses (as opposed to the cheap tasting glasses most of the other stands were using) and the amiable proprietors.  At first we were proposed a flight of 3 wines, starting with my requested 2005 Vosne-Romanée, which had a deep rose color, almost floral aroma, and juicy flavor.  Next came the 2003 Nuits-St.-Georges, darker and more complex, followed by the 2003 Morey-Saint-Denis, ruby-colored with a slight oakiness.  As we chatted with the proprietors, (my French is getting better by the glass!) I mentioned that our 2nd wedding anniversary was in a few days, and they insisted we try a few more wines.  Out came the 2005 Beaune 1er cru Clos du Roy.  It was absolutely amazing.  We asked if 2005 was a better year than 2003, and they told us that 2005 was one for the ages.  Then they gave us a taste of the 2005 Volnay, which was lighter and sweeter, and described as “très feminin, très fin.”  Perhaps it was a little too subtle for my palate – it was nice, but nothing particularly noteworthy, especially after the Vosne-Romanée and the Beaune 1er cru.  To top it off, we were given one more sample: the 2003 Aloxe-Corton.  It was rond.  We began to notice a few fellow salon-goers with hand-trucks for carrying their purchases and wished we had planned as well.  Luckily, G. Prieur was selling cases of 6 bottles for home delivery.  We couldn’t pass up that Clos du Roy, especially if we didn’t even have to carry it!

Our next stop showed that even France is not immune to inane food fads.

Chocolate Fountain

Yes, that’s a chocolate fountain.  Which is too bad, because they had some very good chocolates, once you got past the stupid gimmick.  Our favorite was the dark chocolate with cacao nibs.  We wanted to buy a bag of just those, but all they were selling were mixed-bag gift baskets – again with the stupid gimmicks!

Speaking of gimmicks, the next thing we tried was a fresh cheese mixed with red pepper and shallot, rolled in neat little hors d’oeuvre-sized balls.  They were quite tasty despite their cutesy look, and made with lait cru, to boot.  Then we stopped by a caviar booth and, inexplicably, were given candied hazelnuts.  They were actually quite good, with a nice, dark caramel crunch to them.  But that’s not why I’m at the caviar booth, now is it?

Moving on, we were flagged down by a man peddling calvados and a lighter, sweeter liqueur made from apple cider.  This is not the sort of thing we would normally try, but it turned out to be enjoyable, especially the liqueur, marketed as either an apéritif or a digestif.  It had distinct apple flavor, but with earthy undertones that balanced out the sweetness.

Of course, no French food fair would be complete without an array of fancy sea salts.

One of many salt booths

This particular booth was handing out salted butter caramels.  The caramel could have been cooked a little darker, in my opinion, but I am a sucker for a salty caramel.  To the right of the salt was the Camille de Lys mushroom stand.  Obviously, we had to try it.  We got three different marinated mushrooms: Champignons Bruns, in an acidic, appetite-stimulating marinade; Pleurote Gris, meaty and rich; and Lentins du Chêne, with a subtle curry flavor.

With our palates fully blasted, we, predictably, went straight to… Read the rest of this entry »

Food Fair, continued

19 03 2008

The next hour began with chocolates.  We tasted pear and vanilla caramel-filled chocolates, crunchy praline chocolates, and a peach confection that the chocolatier informed me was made from a peach unique to France.  I asked him where he got his chocolate from and the answer (as it was almost everywhere I asked) was “South America, specifically Venezuela and the Caribbean.”  These were much better than the olive oil chocolates I had so recently encountered, giving me hope for the rest of the chocolate booths.

Next we had the pleasure of partaking in a bite of pure foie gras d’oie.  (That’s goose, for you non-francophones out there.)  The artisan, Stéphane Leprettre, explained that he didn’t add anything to the foie gras but salt.  It was fantastic.  Nick declared it some of the best foie gras he had ever tasted.  It was certainly distinct from duck foie gras (which is less expensive and therefore more common), with a mellow, delicate flavor unlike the voluptuousness of duck.

I was excited to have the opportunity to sample so many high-end French wines, but the next stop, Vignobles Pierre-Emmanuel Janoueix, was disappointing to say the least.  We were poured a taste of 2002 Pomerol which tasted a little watery and flat.  Certainly nothing to write home about.  But when we asked to try another, the man condescendingly told me that the point of the Salon was to go from booth to booth, and that basically, he wouldn’t be pouring more than one taste for anyone.  Good luck with that, buddy!  Maybe you should start out with a better wine, if that’s your attitude.

After a brief macaron break, the Puligny-Montrachet line was too long, so we made our way to the Pessac-Leognan.  We were served a 2002 Château Haut-Gardère, which was delicious, and a 2000, even smoother than the 2002.  I paused for a nibble of some lucques olives (great olive flavor with a dense, almost meaty texture) on the way to a stand with cheeses from the Pyrénées.  They were giving out samples of an aged goat/sheep cheese that had a piquant, salty flavor and an almost crumbly texture.  Their pure sheep’s milk cheese was similar, but stronger and a little mustier.  And then we left the “small room.”

Upon entering the “big room,” we were greeted with this sight:

Sausages, piled high

We were distracted, however, by the Compagnie Bretonne’s smorgasbord of seafood salads.  We ate thon à l’estragon (tuna with tarragon), and rillettes of sardine and mackerel.  After a rich, eggy slice of cannelé, and a spoonful of sautéed shiitake mushrooms, we found ourselves staring at a large case full of interesting-looking sausages.


They appeared to be composed of many thin layers.  We learned after tasting it, that it is, in fact, formed by rolling up the large intestines of pigs and stuffing them inside another large intestine.  I must say, it was the tastiest intestine-only preparation I have ever had.

We refreshed our palates with a couple of seaweed canapés, one of which featured a concoction called “norinade,” which I took to be a play on tapenade.  It was good – not overly salty with a definitive nori flavor.  Moving back to heavier things, we had some smoked filet mignon of pork followed by an incredible Italian cheese: Gialline.  It is made with cow’s milk and has a flavor and texture similar to good Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Of course there was more wine…

Read the rest of this entry »

Food Fair!

18 03 2008

Over the weekend, Nick and I had the good fortune to be given free passes to the Salon Mer & Vigne et Gastronomie.  This turns out too be a major food and wine fair, where people come to taste and purchase artisanal products of the ingestable sort.  Their website being remarkably uninformative, we really had no idea what to expect, although soon after arriving we wished we had brought a shopping bag or two.

We walked into an unassuming suburban building and found a large room with many small booths.  We noticed a full bar set up in the corner, with beers on tap and an espresso machine (hey, this is France).  Near the bar some tables were set up for patrons of the few places that were serving full meals.  One such establishment had a huge oyster display with a guy shucking constantly behind it.


Another employed a man who was making fresh, hot crêpes nonstop.

Crêpe guy

The first place we stopped was  the Domaine des Gravennes booth, where they were pouring Côtes du Rhône.  The woman there was very friendly.  Upon learning that we were from the United States, she told us how much she had learned from the wineries in California in regards to accommodating tourists.  The wines were quite good, and exceptional if you took the price into consideration.  Generally my expectations for Côtes du Rhône are pretty low, but I actually liked these a lot.

Next we went to Pierre Matayron’s Porc Noir de Bigorre stand.  Porc Noir is a breed of pig, believed to be the oldest in France.  It comes from the Pyrenées region and is raised in a free-range environment.  Monsieur Matayron was serving slices of cured ham (à la prosciutto or Serrano) cut right off a whole leg!  He was happy to pose for a picture, as I found many of the artisans there to be, and asked me to send him a copy if it turned out well.

Hamming it up

A whole leg, hoof and all!

Next we tasted some St. Emilion Grand Cru from a woman who was significantly less enthusiastic than her peers.  We moved on to a tea stand where we met Vijay, an Indian man who gave up his steady U.S. office job to pursue his passion: tea.  He explained the special qualities of each tea, including where it came from, what time of day is best to drink it, and how long to steep it.  (4 minutes for most, except the Darjeeling which should only steep 3 minutes.)  We learned that he is a supplier for Mariage Frères, one of the most famous and expensive Parisian tea houses.  As he was brewing fresh tea every 15 mintes or so, we got to try both the Nilgiri (from the south of India) and the Darjeeling.  For those of you who don’t know, I am a big tea drinker, so we bought a sampler (50 grams each of Assam, Darjeeling, Nilgiri, and Dooars) as well as a bag of Vijay’s own creation: Indian Dream.  A heady concoction made with ginger and orange peel, it still manages to enhance the flavor of the tea rather than masking it, as many flavored teas tend to do.

We passed up the bowls of pre-packaged aligot and went for the olive oil chocolates.  They were a little hokey, dyed green and shaped to look like olives.  What olive oil flavor there was was overwhelmed by flavors of candied orange peel and sugar.  Across the way, we tasted some jams and ogled the vanilla bean display.

More Vanilla beans than I have ever seen in one place!

And then there was the absinthe booth…

Read the rest of this entry »

Mac N Cheese: A Classic French Dish

17 03 2008

One of my first homework assignments in culinary school was to make macaroni and cheese using a cheese I had never heard of before and a pasta shape I had never used before.  Having recently returned from my first stint in France, the cheese thing posed a bit of a challenge.  I ended up bringing in Pennette Zamorano, being less well-versed in Spanish cheeses.  (The pasta was a bit of a cop-out, as I had used penne before – pennette being merely smaller penne – but Trader Joe’s wasn’t exactly overflowing with exotic pasta shapes.)  The results: good choice of cheese, overcooked pasta, sauce a little thick, broke when I reheated it.

Since then I have refined my macaroni and cheese recipe, but the principle remains the same.  The most important part of the dish is the béchamel sauce.  It must be creamy, not too heavy or starchy, and thin enough to accommodate large quantities of cheese.  In classic French cuisine, a béchamel with cheese (specifically Gruyère) incorporated into it is known as Mornay sauce.  Pour this over roasted or steamed cauliflower and you have Cauliflower Mornay.  Use pepper jack and cheddar and you’ve got yourself some upscale queso (or nacho cheese sauce, as it’s known to non-Texans).  Add it to pasta, and you have mac n cheese.  Over time I have come to the conclusion that a mixture of half sharp cheddar (preferably Tillamook) and half gouda is my preferred mac n cheese blend.  I also like a bit of smoked sausage, like kielbasa, mixed in for texture and flavor contrast as well as protein content.

I had pretty much resigned myself to going cheddar-less while in France, so you can imagine my surprise when, on a recent supermarket jaunt, I saw a wedge of red-waxed orange cheese prominently labeled “cheddar.”  Of course I had to buy it.  When preliminary taste tests determined that it was, in fact, real cheddar cheese, and not some weird French interpretation thereof, I knew I would be making mac n cheese in the near future.

So on Saturday, after a long afternoon fighting crowds at the BHV sale, I went to gather my mise en place for the mac n cheese.  Gouda is no problem to find here, nor is milk, pasta, or sausage.

Mac N Cheese Mise

I brought it all home and came to a horrible realization: I don’t have a whisk here.  Nick, ever confident in my culinary abilities, convinced me to make the béchamel using a wooden spoon.  I was also stressing out over the ratio of butter to flour to milk, and he (wisely) suggested that I stop being a baker for the evening and wing it.  So I melted some butter, added some flour, and stirred it over medium heat until it darkened ever so slightly and no longer smelled raw.  I then added milk a tiny bit at a time, stirring furiously and constantly with my spoon so as not to have any lumps in the finished sauce.  When I had incorporated enough milk to make a fairly thin sauce (it will thicken later), I threw in a bay leaf and seasoned the sauce with salt and pepper.  After about 15 minutes of simmering, stirring constantly, I had a nice béchamel about the thickness of heavy cream.  Into this I stirred the grated cheeses, tasted for seasoning, wished for a pinch of fresh nutmeg, and my Mornay was  ready.

Meanwhile, the pasta had been cooking, the sausage browning, and the camera malfunctioning.  I folded the pasta and sauce together, sliced the sausage with my brand-new Sabatier knife (yay!), and stirred that in as well. 

Mac n cheese

And got the camera back up and running.  As hearty a meal as this is, I thought we could use a nice salad alongside.  We had some green beans in the fridge, and I had just picked up some tasty cherry tomatoes, so I decided to combine them into a salade tiède.  I quickly sautéed the green beans in a little olive oil and removed the pan from the heat.  Then I halved the tomatoes and added them straight to the pan.  Another drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of sea salt, a few twists of black pepper, and some freshly chopped parsley, and we were in business.

Salade tiède de tomates cerises et haricots verts

Thanks in no small part to the brightly colored salad, it made an attractive plate.  (And my mother always told me that a colorful plate was a healthy one.)

Mac n cheese dinner

Oh, yeah, and it tasted good, too.

%d bloggers like this: